Farming is risky for anyone: volatile markets and unpredictable weather can make planning and execution from season to season a difficult prospect. Make that double with the extreme weather climate change is bringing. Sure, there is crop insurance in some cases, but what about farmers like Mike Brownfield?
One bad hailstorm and Mike Brownfield’s orchard—the first certified organic orchard in Washington—could lose an entire crop. Being organic means being viewed by the USDA as more risky than conventionally grown fruit (despite studies showing the opposite); being viewed as more risky means paying higher premiums for insurance, but still receiving only conventional-price reimbursement should disaster strike (despite organics being worth more at market).
The fourth in IATP’s “Climate change, agriculture and resilience” video series focuses on the risk involved for farmers who grow our food, how they deal with it, and how that risk is increasing as weather extremes due to climate change shake our system’s very foundations. Without conventional crop insurance to protect his orchard, Mike Brownfield has instituted other methods of risk-management:
For us, having a diversity of crops has made a difference. A certain variety of apple is not always going to have a great year for you, and so that's why we diversified so much in our crops—and in our marketing.
Watch the video or check out the rest of the series:
How can we balance the environmental impacts of farming with our need to continue producing food?
Today, in part three in our “Climate change, agriculture and resilience” video series, father and daughter team Maurice and Beth Robinette of Lazy R Ranch talk about their approach to farming grass-fed beef and why carbon sequestration and protecting their ecosystem is so important. As Beth Robinette puts it:
So much of what we do here is about ‘How do we create maximum functioning ecosystems in our pasture?’ and to me that’s what resilience is. If you have an ecosystem that’s at peak function, it can take a lot more damage or uncertainty than an ecosystem that is not at peak function. That’s about the sum of what we’re trying to do here: Grow grass that’ll keep growing.
But making changes like the Robinette’s isn’t easy, or cheap. As direct marketers of their beef, the Robinettes command a premium price, and can put those dollars toward protecting their farm’s ecosystem. For farmers that are just getting by due to market prices or input costs, this kind of adaptation would be impossible.
More long-term thinking in policymaking, and programs that encourage practices like those Lazy R Ranch has piloted would go a long way in building a food system that can withstand the shocks of climate change while contributing less to the factors that are known to cause it.
Watch the video, or check out the rest of the series:
“I think we came in April and it was within a month or two when all the ground was still bare and black and we had one of those two- or three-day blows and I had drifts of soil on my window sills and I'm thinking ‘Hmmm this isn't good.’ That was probably what sparked us to start making some of the changes we did.”
That’s Loretta Jaus speaking about the extreme soil erosion she and her husband faced on their farm due, in part, to modern tiling practices that replaced the region’s prairies and wetlands with more dry, tillable soil.
Part two of our “Climate change, agriculture and resilience” series features the Minnesota organic dairy farm of Martin and Loretta Jaus who farm the same 410 acres that Martin’s great grandfather homesteaded in 1877. In order to combat the eroding soil, and remain more resilient in the increasing incidences of drought and flood, Martin and Loretta have worked to increase their farm’s biodiversity. From the video:
They improved and expanded a pasture made up of deep-rooted perennials that could better access soil moisture during dry spells and serve as a sponge when it rains. They put in shelter belts of trees and they restored a marsh and a pond. Not only did these measures decrease erosion but the Jaus's found that their farm became more resilient as well, both in times to drought and wet weather.
Watch the video, or check out the rest of the series:
Update: All five videos are now available at the following links:
Earlier this month, the USDA released its draft climate adaptation plan. The plan recognizes the serious challenges faced by farmers as climate-related weather events, like extreme droughts or floods, wreak havoc on agriculture. The agency is accepting comments through April. The good news is that many farmers are already ahead of the curve in building resilient farming systems to face climate change.
This week, in the lead up to the MOSES Organic Farming conference, IATP will be releasing a series of new videos that look at individual farmers and how sustainable practices on the farm help them stay resilient to a changing climate and increasingly common hurdles like the 2012 drought.
Rural resistance has helped slow the development of renewable energy. It doesn't have to be that way. For the President's green-energy plans to succeed, he needs to reach out to the rural leaders who are ready to act on climate change.
President Barack Obama made urgent calls for new steps to address climate change in his State of the Union address yesterday, “for the sake of our children and our future.” While the focus was on renewable energy, he missed an opportunity to talk about the essential ingredient for addressing climate change: the support of rural communities.
Due to the structure of our legislative system, representatives from rural America—and their constituents—have played a disproportionate role in derailing federal climate action over the last several years. Rural resistance is due, in large part, to the complete neglect of this constituency by U.S. climate policymakers and activists, which allowed climate issues in rural America to be defined primarily by the fossil fuel industry and its surrogates.
Without positive, pro-rural voices, or proposals on the table that emphasize the opportunities, climate change deniers have been able to—correctly—focus on the additional burdens that new regulation or taxation would bring to parts of the country that already have lower incomes and higher energy costs than cities.
Encouragingly, some rural perceptions about climate change are changing. Rural people are already experiencing and responding to the climate crisis in myriad ways. One of the most severe droughts in U.S. history is still unfolding, forcing farmers and ranchers across the country to rethink crop and livestock production systems.
Writing in National Geographic in December 2012 about “small-scale irrigation techniques with simple buckets, affordable pumps, drip lines, and other equipment” that “are enabling farm families to weather dry seasons, raise yields, diversify their crops, and lift themselves out of poverty” water expert Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project cautioned against reckless land and water-related investments in Africa. “[U]nless African governments and foreign interests lend support to these farmer-driven initiatives, rather than undermine them through land and water deals that benefit large-scale, commercial schemes, the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered.”
That same month, the online publication Market Oracle reported that “[t]he new ‘water barons’—the Wall Street banks and elitist multibillionaires—are buying up water all over the world at unprecedented pace.” The report reveals two phenomena that have been gathering speed, and that could potentially lead to profit accumulation at the cost of communities and commons —the expansion of market instruments beyond the water supply and sanitation to other areas of water governance, and the increasingly prominent role of financial institutions.
Last week, IATP, in partnership with Sustainable Northwest and the National Rural Assembly, hosted the kick-off meeting in Minneapolis for a new initiative: the Rural Climate Network, designed to support rural action and education around climate change. This inaugural meeting brought together rural organizations and leaders from around the country to discuss what resources, tools and information are most needed to help rural citizens understand and respond to the mounting climate crises. The meeting made clear the need for a specifically rural effort that builds connections and capacity among existing organizations, supports and promotes on-the-ground climate projects and supports rural leaders who can speak to both rural communities and policy makers about the need and value of effective climate policy and action on the community, state, national and international levels.
The meeting took place at the McKnight Foundation and included representatives from the following organizations: California Climate and Agriculture Network; Center for Rural Affairs; Center for Rural Strategies; CROPP Cooperative and Organic Valley; CURE; Farm Aid; Forest Guild; Land Stewardship Project; Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy; MACED; Main Street Project; National Congress of American Indians; National Family Farm Coalition; NCAT; Pesticide Action Network; RAFI-USA; Sustainable Northwest; The Watershed Research and Training Center; Threlkeld Farm Organic Dairy / Organic Valley; and the Western Organization of Resource Councils.
The 18th annual climate negotiations of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) just ended Saturday night. These government officials had a historic and an urgently critical task at hand: how to effectively address the increasing climate chaos characterized by extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bhopa (which recently just devastated several islands in the Philippines), droughts, floods and eerily erratic weather before it’s too late.
The “Doha Climate Gateway,” as the outcome is being called, resulted in a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (the KP) and built the “gateway” for a new climate treaty that is supposed to come into force by 2020. In three year’s time, governments will have to finalize this new treaty that will now be negotiated in a track they call the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).
Hard on the heels of Oxfam’s Food and Gender Discussion Blog, in which ten experts provided ten views over ten days intended to reframe food security from the perspective of women’s rights and women’s agency comes another Oxfam online forum for debate on agriculture called "The Future of Agriculture."
The series will explore four issues:
As with the series on food and gender, the discussion aims to generate bold proposals, in this case to meet increasing world demand for food in a way that eradicates hunger and preserves the environment.
I had the privilege to contribute to the debate, and my essay (one of twenty or so to be featured over the next two weeks) has been posted as one of two to kick off the discussion. Below are some excerpts from my contribution—I do hope you will find time to read and respond as the debate unfolds.
Agriculture is a risky business. At the mercy of inclement weather and pests, a frequent casualty of war, and subject to its own particular demand constraints and market failures, agriculture merits a branch of economics all to itself. The risks are not just economic: they also link to biological diversity and natural resource management, to culture and social relationships.
The theme of the day, "Solving for Pattern," comes from the Wendell Berry essay of the same name. Berry talks about apparent solutions that in fact either make the problem they are intended to solve worse, or solve one problem but in the process create a whole set of other problems; “as when the problem of soil compaction is solved by a bigger tractor, which further compacts the soil, which makes a need for a still bigger tractor, and so on.”
Berry tells the story of Earl Spencer’s dairy farm, which was on the conventional path of increasing scale, commercialization, debt, specialization and disconnection with the land; until he decided that he needed to operate in balance with nature. Spencer said his farm, “had been going at a dead run, and now he would slow it to a walk.”
Berry is a farmer talking about farming in his essay, but as usual, he also has bigger fish to fry. He tells us what study after study has since confirmed that we need to move away from agriculture modeled on industrial production. And importantly, he recognizes that this is not just because of its dependence on unsustainable technologies and inputs, but because of its business model, because the profitability of industrial farming depends on ignoring many of the very things that we care about most, such as human health, animal welfare, community and the environment.
This is the pattern I think we all need to see and solve for.